New resource offers hope to Cambodians challenging their government

By agency reporter
April 27, 2018

As Reporters Without Borders reveals that Cambodia has dropped ten places in its press freedom index, Global Witness and Open Corporates have launched a huge new dataset that will hand power back to the country’s citizens. The data, which shows who owns and controls companies in Cambodia, can help journalists and activists to expose the sorts of corruption and abuses that have helped keep the regime in power for over thirty years.

“Time and time again, Global Witness investigations have shown how Cambodia’s top politicians, their families and cronies have struck corrupt deals and looted state assets at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised,” said Global Witness campaigner Emma Burnett. “By gaming Cambodia’s politics and economy in their favour, these people have made themselves incredibly rich and powerful, and turned Prime Minister Hun Sen into one of the world's longest serving premiers.

Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists, with one the best and 180 the worst score. Cambodia has dropped ten spots since last year - from 132 to 142 - just above Venezuela in 143rd place and South Sudan in 144th.

This will not come as a surprise to many Cambodians, but the report is an important wake-up call for the international community. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime launched a fierce attack on free reporting in 2017, shutting down more than 30 independent media outlets, jailing several journalists on charges including espionage, and threatening and prosecuting citizens for comments on social media deemed to be “anti-government”. This was part of a broader clampdown ahead of a general election in July – the opposition party was dissolved last November and the opposition leader has been in prison for nearly eight months, accused of 'treason'.

“With elections fast approaching, and an electorate that is now younger and more digitally savvy than ever, the government has ramped up its efforts to lock up, silence and spy on its critics in a desperate attempt to cling onto power. Open Corporates’ dataset is an important reality check at a time when it’s hard to trust what you read in Cambodian papers or hear on the news. We hope it will help shift the balance of power back to Cambodians who want to expose injustices and hold their leaders to account”, said Burnett. 

The ruling elite’s media takeover may have reached its zenith last year, but it is no new. Global Witness’ 2016 Hostile Takeover report revealed how Hun Mana, Hun Sen’s eldest daughter, was one of only two media moguls in Cambodia to have holdings across radio, TV and newspapers. She chairs Bayon Media, for example, which communicates via three TV stations and a radio broadcaster considered to be one of the government’s leading propaganda tools.

The media is just one of many sectors that have boosted the extended Hun family’s wealth and influence. Hostile Takeover showed how its members were pulling the strings in Cambodia’s private sector and earning vast fortunes across finance, hospitality, retail, mining, energy, trading, transport and more.

These revelations stemmed from official data on company ownership that Global Witness scraped from Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce database in February 2016, after the government had restricted access to it. Global Witness transformed this into an online database that Cambodians could use with less risk of surveillance. Two years on, Open Corporates has re-scraped the Ministry database, unearthing information on more than 10,000 new companies. This data will now be regularly refreshed and housed on Open Corporates website, alongside company data from 126 other jurisdictions.

Global Witness hopes that this new resource will be used not just in Cambodia but globally. The campaign group is calling on foreign governments to sanction members of Cambodia’s elite for dismantling their country’s democracy and pillaging the state by preventing corrupt individuals from travelling to, investing, or spending in major economies like the US, Europe and Australia. Data on company ownership is key to tracking their assets.

“For over twenty years, we have been warning Cambodia’s donors, investors and trading partners that the country was transitioning to a dictatorship. As Hun Sen’s party heads for yet another slam-dunk in a sham election, the international community owes it to the people of Cambodia to intervene. The best, perhaps the only way they can do that is by preventing Cambodia’s corrupt elite from stashing, spending or growing their ill-gotten gains overseas”, said Emma Burnett.

* Access the new database here

* Read Hostile Takeover here 

* Global Witness https://www.globalwitness.org/en-gb/

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